Let’s be real, not one trade, website or publication has 100% completely covered “peak TV,” (that insane upswell of smallscreen content post-Sopranos on HBO) that includes reality TV, docu-series, sitcoms, dramas, miniseries, limited series, live musicals, cartoons for adults, documentaries, dramedies, period pieces, procedurals, films made just for TV, prequels, sequels, Marvel or DC superhero shows, late-night chat shows, sketch comedies, romantic comedies, standup specials, antihero comedies, and even cooking shows.
Exhausting. You literally need that apparatus that Malcolm McDowell had strapped to his head in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange keeping his eyes opened to try and canvas it all.
This list will focus solely on the scripted efforts of 2018, but that doesn’t discount the well-done reality TV people tune into like Curse of Oak Island, Born This Way, Cooper’s Treasure or Gold Rush, all solid TV shows with legions of fans.
Don’t be snobby about those shows, they earn huge ratings and serve as a relief valve for people too stressed to immerse their brains in more complex scripted series like FX’s Legion or HBO’s Westworld, which are baffling in their convoluted arcs of late even to those who cover TV professionally.
Or dare to discount the quietly mesmerizing British imports introduced to Americans on Netflix like Monty Don’s popular Big Dreams Small Spaces, where the strapping Don, a Tom Jones-ish posh sounding gardener just pops in, tells people what’s amiss in their hedges, then appears months later for a boozy garden reveal party. I want to snap his suspenders so badly.
There are loads of DIY and HGTV house reno and real estate shows that are rabbit holes for relaxed TV viewing too. History’s American Pickers and PBS’ ongoing juggernaut Antiques Roadshow are always great for a robust tour across America’s garage sale and thrift store scene and for examining odd inherited finds. Both shows are edifying, entertaining and comforting at the same time.
And with over 500 scripted series alone at last count, all demographics across the globe were served up some tasty high-quality fare, and even among professional TV critics, no one could completely agree on what was best or worthy of your time. But we all agree, there was a lot of it!
Regardless, we guarantee you, everything on this best of scripted TV list, though on paper might not look to be your jam, deserves your consideration to take in.
Presented in no particular order, these shows left a mark and made us all here at Monsters and Critics think, laugh, hold our breath in fear or cry a bit, sometimes all in one episode:
Better Call Saul
Season four of this AMC series and still going strong, as Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring, Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler and Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill break our hearts and flesh out more of this darker prequel to Breaking Bad. It’s evidence of the enormous talent that showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have in telling a story.
After brother Chuck’s (Michael McKean) death, it’s now a deep freefall as Jimmy’s transformation to Saul Goodman has happened.
This series is adult dramatic storytelling at its best and is all of the above, funny, shocking and heartbreaking in one swoop. One of the tightest and brightest ensembles of actors out there bar none. Bob Odenkirk has lifted himself into the strata from funny sketch comedic actor to great A-list actor in this fantastic role.
Nanette (Hannah Gadsby)
Less a comedy and more a one-woman show for Netflix, Gadsby’s naked reveal of her pain and her journey (in what was billed as a comedy) is really a jaw-dropper performance which will stun unprepared viewers.
Gadsby artfully dissects the methods and tools of comedy and using it as a deflection, self-deprecation versus self-nullification to survive a coarse and cruel world at times.
Her show underlines the strength we all can muster to overcome any setback, prejudice or abuse suffered. Gadsby performs while building a crescendo of intensity that hits you like a train on fire, oddly in a most pleasant and civilized way.
She’s a lovely person done great wrong but has an enormous capacity to forgive.
No shrill rebuffs or finger pointing, just matter-of-fact lessons on why we all need to be considerate stewards of other’s feelings and truths they are walking in this – at times – perplexing, painful and short life.
Escape at Dannemora
This Showtime effort that chronicles the real-life prison breakout in the Clinton Correctional facility was produced and directed by Ben Stiller. It is a drum-tight, gripping narrative that uses the four seasons to mark the time passage and backdrop the bleak lives of those in this North Country prison town, where everyone, it seems, is attached vocationally to the prison.
Chilling is the one word you could summarize Benicio del Toro’s character, Richard Matt, an artistic psychopath who masterfully manipulates besotted prison worker Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell.
Tilly is played in an astonishingly raw and believable turn by Patricia Arquette, a beautiful woman who refused to let vanity interfere with her artistic vision of who Tilly was and the physical transformation into this graspy supervisor.
More sympathetic is Paul Dano’s David Sweat, the object of Tilly’s real love who was Matt’s accomplice, surviving the escape only to get caught again. Dannemora was written by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, and was one of Showtime’s best events of 2018.
Comedies are tricky. People either eat up the Two and a Half Men’s of the TV world with a spoon or use that spoon to gag on shallow sitcom inane silliness.
HBO’s Barry is not silly. It is dark, surprising in its well-earned laughs, and a touch tragic and complex yarn that shows off all the best qualities of its insanely talented star Bill Hader.
His character Barry Berkman is an emotionally childlike savant sniper who has been deeply damaged from warfare. Barry is now a professional killer. His predicament engages unlikely sympathy for his character, and the supporting cast, especially Henry Winkler as acting coach Gene Cousineau, who has not had such a great TV role since Fonzie, is beyond touchingly funny.
Excellent performances are turned in from Anthony Harrigan as Noho Hank, Stephen Root as Monroe Fuches, Barry’s damaged handler, and Sarah Goldberg’s wide-eyed and needy narcissist, Sally Reed.
Barry breaks our hearts and plays on those late in life discoveries of finally realizing what you were truly meant to do all along, even if you are an ace killer who can pull down big bucks. It’s an extreme curve ball of intelligent, fish-out-of-water situational comedy weighted in drama.
The Last O.G.
TBS comedy The Last O.G. was a fantastic gift created for returning to the spotlight Tracy Morgan (he suffered horrific injuries in a 2014 crash), Executive produced by Jordan Peele and Tracy Morgan, his character, Tray Barker, is an ex-con who is dealing with the changes not just in his Brooklyn neighborhood, but in society and the culture at large.
Great turns of performance from Tiffany Haddish as Shay, Tray’s remarried (to a white guy) ex, Allen Maldonado as cousin Bobby and Cedric the Entertainer as halfway house boss Miniard Mullins.
At the 2017 summer press tour, Morgan said of the series: “This isn’t a black show. This is a show about humanity. This is the show about second chances. This is a show about redemption…I wanted to transcend that. Black people ain’t the only ones that live here. Everybody lives here. Who are we to say others don’t matter? There are white people coming home from prison too. So we didn’t want to deal with that like that. I wanted to deal with humanity.”
‘Nuff said. A great, heartfelt and at times very funny show.
BBC America knocked it out of the park with this fast-moving thriller where the best performances and roles are played by women.
Loaded with subtext, Villanelle (Jodie Comer) latches on and lures the M-5 booted-to-supersecret M-6 administrative protagonist with ambitious in-the-field dreams, our titular Eve (Sandra Oh), in a cat and mouse game.
Eve risks her personal and professional life as she is driven to the edge of the abyss whilst unraveling who is killing all these high profile political targets. She is consumed by obsessive research and fact-finding. Her hard work pays off and catches the attention of this elusive sexy assassin who is intrigued by Eve’s tenacity and smarts.
Flirting with being caught, Jodie Comer is Villanelle, a killer queen whose performance is equally as good as Sandra Oh as Eve. Comer’s lithe and sexually fluid Villanelle traipses the world buying hard-to-find luxury goods while fulfilling contract hits… that is until her cocky showing off act becomes hugely problematic for her shadowy Russian handlers.
Showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s efforts show that well cast and written thrillers don’t need a man to bring that edge of the seat noise. These women are pure electricity in scene and a great example of when skilled British and American casts mix it up together in a tight and taut story magic will happen. More please. Now.
Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.
USA Network gave us an addictive dramatized series that was about two late rap superstars, portrayed to perfection by Marcc Rose as Tupac Shakur, and Wavyy Jonez as Biggie. Their tragic stories are intertwined as we are lead to Tupac Shakur’s assassination in 1996 and Christopher “the Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace’s in 1997.
The yarn wends three storylines, the relationship between Tupac and Biggie which eventually went south and the original L.A.P.D. investigation into Biggie’s murder, done by detective Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson) then a decade after the killings. Then the task force assigned in the mid-2000s.
That investigation was lead by Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel), Daryn Dupree (Bokeem Woodbine), and Lee Tucker (Wendell Pierce) and are dramatized and delivered in a knock out performance by all of these actors that grips the viewer until it ends.
This one was a genre sidewinder. AMC’s horror series had touches of the supernatural and that period piece feel that British TV excels at, yet was so frightening it made the summertime (when it aired) feel icy cold.
The specter of being lost at sea underscores this veddy tale of hubris and gross miscalculation of two 19th-Century Ships from mother England. Despite their derring-do, sailing across the top of the globe where the unforgiving ice floes embraced and consumed their hulls starts this dance to an uncertain future.
Dan Simmons’ novel detailed the actual historical details of the journey as Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) and Capt. Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), captains of these two doomed ships tries to manage the psychological deterioration of their starving crews. Hines and Harris are both utterly exceptional in these roles and worthy of note. Harris’ Crozier outlives Hines’ Franklin but within unimaginable circumstances.
Incredible and memorable performances are given from Tobias Menzies cast as James Fitzjames, Adam Nagaitis as conniving Cornelius Hickey, Paul Ready s Dr. Henry Goodsir, and “Lady Silence,” played by Nive Nielsen, and are what make this series that artfully presented as raw human nature was stressed to its mortal limits. Absolutely stunning acting in this series.
Also, it toys with the belief (or not) that there is something far more powerful than we humans surrounding us in nature and that blithely planting flags and conquering other people’s lands has unexpected and deadly consequences.
One of America’s biggest serial murder mysteries for many years was that of the Unabomber — a shadowy figure who terrorized people, killing three, with lethal packages sent in the mail, all painstakingly prepared to detonate upon opening.
Executive producer Andrew Sodroski and director Greg Yaitanes, who dramatized the story of Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany) for Discovery through the published recollections of an unusual and brilliant FBI profiler, Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington) sizzled in the building chase and memorable performances. Mark Duplass cast as David, Ted’s brother was also standout.
Federal agents arrested Kaczynski on April 3, 1996, at his remote cabin in Lincoln, Montana. Yaitanes direction also showed how the CIA’s controversial Project MKUltra and their humiliating Harvard experiments likely tore apart Ted’s psyche. Edge of the seat watching.
Pete Holmes makes the list for the kinder, gentler approach to outrageous situational comedy he took for HBO. This is a bit of a roman a clef for Holmes who is playing himself, Pete Holmes.
In the show, Pete is cuckolded and heartbroken as he runs to New York City in a bid to realize his dream of making it as a standup comedian. Easier said than done!
He tries to stick to his Christian ideals while hanging out with hedonistic sinners like Artie Lange and Bostonian wisecracker Bill Burr.
The result? Touching and organically funny moments with a painfully accurate reveal of the brass balls it takes someone to make it (even just a living) as a stand-up comedian. Delightful in tone, it resonates with truth and shows off how affable Holmes actually is.
The Haunting of Hill House
Netflix’s perfectly timed pre-Halloween yarn involves a family tormented by their past, seemingly doomed to repeat it. The eponymous novel written in 1959 by Shirley Jackson is brought to life by filmmaker Mike Flanagan. Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman) is an author who relives his childhood in Hill House, a 100-year-old mansion his parents, Hugh (Henry Thomas, Timothy Hutton) and Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino), bought to renovate and flip. At the end of that fateful summer, they fled in their father’s car, leaving their mother behind. But why?
Steven’s book about this event has created a schism with his Crain siblings Theo (Kate Siegel), Eleanor (aka Nell, played by Victoria Pedretti), her twin Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen)and Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser).
Artfully and with surgical pacing precision we learn that this house wants to hold these Crains in a spectral “forever embrace” and acts as a siren luring them back to where their mother took her life years earlier, with memories of truly haunted events.
Great effects and jump scares that are not excessive, with an introspective underscore of why we allow (and give power to) buried childhood trauma to upend our adult lives.
Speaking of childhood trauma…This was a hard one to watch, but Showtime, to their credit, tackled the adaptations of these Edward St. Aubyn novels of child abuse, drug abuse and crushing loss set in well-heeled aristocratic circumstance.
All of which is brought vividly and loquaciously to light by the uber talented Benedict Cumberbatch. No one else could have played this role with the verbally tenacity and laser sharp, quick-witted delivery that he brought to the role.
It’s beautifully lensed and has some chilling performances turned in by Hugo Weaving as Melrose’s elitist predator father David Melrose and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Patrick’s dreamily detached mother, Eleanor Melrose.
Epix spy thriller is a gripping watch, and there’s nothing else like it on TV and that in itself is an accomplishment.
Olen Steinhauer’s series stars Richard Armitage as spy Daniel Miller, Rhys Ifans as Hector, another CIA operative, Leland Orser as Deputy Chief Robert Kirsch, Michelle Forbes as director Valerie Edwards, Keke Palmer as case officer April Lewis and Richard Jenkins as retired director Steven Frost.
This excellent spy drama filmed in Europe takes us inside “The Station” in Berlin and boasts guest star James Cromwell this season… all the more reason to tune in. Ripped from the headlines international wargames and political drama underscore this teleplay that moves at a perfect pace.
Orser steals the show as foul-mouthed, fast thinking Kirsch, a man who suffers no fools and can see around corners.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Hulu’s hit series season two got a critical shellacking from many TV critics, but not me.
This was the season that Yvonne Strahovski took the reins from Elisabeth Moss as her Serena Joy became THE story. Her tortured turn as the Commander’s wife could be a portentous and possible salvation for the oppressed women of Gilead, in light of her own abuse at the hands of her husband.
Now the former Evangelical star and best-selling author who helped shape Gilead is ready to make a big decision, will Serena continue cowering under husband Fred’s rule or become part of the growing resistance? The completely dystopian drama is set up for a hell of a new season.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace
FX gets a nod with Tom Rob Smith adapted the screenplay from the 1999 nonfiction book by Maureen Orth (Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History).
We open with blazingly bright blue skies inside the stunning Villa Casa Casuarina on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, as Versace (Édgar Ramírez), his partner Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin) are lounging poolside, and out there lurking in South Beach, his soon to be killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss).
In a series of backward narrative snapshots, we understand how ultra smart and obsessive Cunanan – who was gifted in the telling whoppers department – became a stone, cold killer.
Kudos to the supporting cast that included closeted real-estate developer Lee Miglin, (Mike Farrell) and his cosmetics mogul wife Marilyn Miglin (Judith Light) and former Navy lieutenant Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock).
It showed more than a murder, but systemic police violations, gay rights suppression and how self-hatred can warp a soul.
Another FX kudo goes to Kurt Sutter’s long-awaited follow up to Sons of Anarchy, which exceeded all expectations. It also provided the enormously talented Edward James Olmos a chance to create a standout complex and layered patriarch, more than just a hardworking dad but a hardcore dude with an intense backstory just trying to keep his two boys, Angel (Clayton Cardenas) and EZ (JD Pardo), above ground.
The show cleverly brings back some of the band with old SOA characters like Lincoln Potter (Ray McKinnon), a fast-moving Gemma (Katey Sagal) cameo and surprise! Our scoop of the season, Danny Trejo back as Romeo Parada.
The south of the border 1%er MC yarn has all the masculine Sutter hallmarks, and thanks to co-showrunner Elgin James’ authentic dialogue and a rogue’s gallery of memorable characters, you got yourself a tasty TV burrito to savor.
But make no mistake, Olmos is the star of this series.
Netflix 80’s throwback comedy GLOW has become a Trojan Horse for how amazing Marc Maron truly is as an actor when given the right role. Not that he was chopped liver in his IFC show, but this has taken him to a new stratosphere of earned recognition.
And for the women in the cast, insanely great roles abound too. But clearly, this season were both standouts for Maron and for Betty Gilpin, who plays Debbie Eagan, aka Liberty Bell.
Director Sam (Maron) and rich producer Bash (Chris Lowell) are enhanced in their scenes by knockout moves from their ladies of wrestling.
This season was a well-done deep dive of character stories, with Sunita Mani cast as Arthie “Beirut the Mad Bomber” Premkumar, Kia Stevens as Tammé “The Welfare Queen” Dawson, and the leads, Ruth “Zoya the Destroya” Wilder (Alison Brie) and American-as-apple-pie Debbie “Liberty Belle” Eagan (Betty Gilpin) in a sophomore run that rips your heart out and is also a riot.
The Kominsky Method
Chuck Lorre’s of a certain age buddy series begins with a tragic event and then spends the rest of the episodes unpacking the emotional fallout.
It is the story of uber-agent Norman Newlander (Alan Arkin) and his personal loss despite his great financial success as a talent agency owner.
Arkin gives an award-worthy performance that is both subtle and powerful in his emotional reaction to beloved wife Eileen’s (Susan Sullivan) death.
He seems fine at the funeral and reception, then breaks down when doing the mundane things she always handles like picking up the dry cleaning. A dress waiting for her levels him in a scene that will resonate emotionally. Bring tissues.
Also grieving is their mutual friend, Sandy Kominsky, played by Michael Douglas. Once quite the sexy bastard, Kominsky is one of LA’s top former actor-turned legendary acting coaches. He was also something in his day, a playboy who never could commit to one woman.
Together these two older men are propping each other up, keeping each other’s spirits from falling as they navigating mortality, prostate issues (Danny DeVito hilariously plays their shared urologist) modern life and how people communicate, observing addicted loved ones and feeling helpless about it, and grieving Eileen’s loss together.
Kominsky brings home how you need your friends more than ever (even more than blood family for many) as time passes, and how weathering the most tragic events is softened with the right company.
Huge kudos go to Nancy Travis who has a carved a bit of an acting career as a wife and girlfriend, but she spins it into gold as Lisa, an acting student of Kominsky that catches his eye. Travis always adds to anything she is cast in, even Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing.
Double huzzahs go to the radiant Sarah Baker who shines as Sandy’s good daughter Mindy. She runs the acting studio with him. Another heartbreaker for Newlander is managing his troubled daughter, played by Lisa Edelstein.
You will cry and laugh almost at the same time with this one.
DirecTV and AT&T have a Peter Farrelly and Bobby Mort knife and fork delicious sweet comedy that many have not seen, but should.
Ron Livingston is the titular Loudermilk, an alcoholic struggling with his demons, and who this season saw him relapse in New Orleans. There was a death in his immediate family too. But he’s a resilient cuss and he fights back.
It is the Sober Friends meetings that Loudermilk must attend which features a rogues gallery of delightful characters slinging great lines, including standout Brian Regan as Mugsy, who has a hard time keeping count of his kids, even when sober.
Regan is a great foil to the more deadpan Livingston and energetically they are the chocolate and peanut butter of this tasty little comedy you need to catch up on.
Incredible casting and horrific in its premise, The Alienist – much like The Terror – made us feel icy cold in the dead of summer.
TNT’s exceptional effort was based on the book by Caleb Carr, a psychological thriller that pitted the gilded age well-heeled American native folks against an upswell of poor immigrants from Europe.
The exciting times were defined by incredible advances in machinery, technology and especially in forensics and medicine. And in great human suffering especially in America’s burgeoning cities.
In 1896 New York, a serial killer is racking up loads of kills as boy prostitutes are being found maimed and eyeless all over the city.
Enter Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, newspaper illustrator John Moore and police department secretary Sara Howard (played by Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning respectively) who band together in a bid to conduct the investigation in secret.
Why? No one seems to care that so many children are being found dead. Pushback is felt from the elites and power base of the city who are conspiring and covering for a multitude of sinners and morally bankrupt souls. They all are circling these three in a vice grip.
The pacing and methodology of how these unlikely three uncover the clues and stand up to the powers that made for great TV, and if you have missed it, find it.
The fast and dirty 10 to catch up on – There was a lot of great scripted TV in 2018!
Sneaky Pete (Amazon)
Mr. Mercedes (AT&T)
Better Things (FX)
Mars (Nat Geo)
Mr. In-Between (FX)
The Bisexual (Hulu)
BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
With so much great scripted television in 2018, it was difficult to choose which shows were the biggest must-see hits but this is definitely a comprehensive list of everything our readers should give a watch, at least once, to see just how hooked you’ll get.
Will 2019 offer up such an incredible vieweing experience? We’ll just have to wait and see!